Campus researchers make discovery that may lead to male contraceptives

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Campus researchers have made a huge leap in understanding human sperm physiology, which may lead to the development of male contraceptive alternatives, according to a campus press release.

The team, composed of campus researchers and researchers from Yale and UC San Francisco, was led by Polina Lishko, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of cell and developmental biology.

The findings, published in the journal Science on March 17, detailed the discovery of a protein receptor that triggers sperm’s power kick, which enables sperm to penetrate and fertilize a human egg, according to the campus press release.

The uncovering of the protein receptor gives scientists “an understanding of another pathway that is involved in human sperm activity,” said Melissa Miller, a campus postdoctoral fellow and the paper’s lead author, in the press release.

Additionally, the study’s findings, according to the release, may prove instrumental in the future development of unisex contraceptives — contraceptives that work for both men and women. While other possible unisex contraceptives exist, this would be one of the better options, Miller noted in the release.

Lishko said the study’s results may also have the potential to modulate pain perception.

Anthony Iavarone, campus research scientist and one of the study’s authors, added that in addition to future contraceptive options, the findings can also be used to target fertility issues.

Lishko noted that very little research exists on human male sperm at the molecular level, which inhibits scientific understanding of how human male fertility works.

“The current diagnostic for male infertility is in a poor state,” Lishko said. “We can’t help because we don’t know what’s wrong there. We don’t know how human sperm works at a molecular level.”

The study’s findings will fuel further research efforts to understand how to design a contraceptive drug that can inhibit sperm cell fertility, according to Lishko.

The research team has built a database of human sperm mRNA that reflects all known information about human sperm cells, according to Lishko. She said this database will help researchers and clinicians study human sperm cells.

“Now, since we have a map of what is in human sperm cells, we can make a huge leap in understanding human sperm physiology on molecular levels,” Lishko noted.

The findings can be useful in family planning as well, Lishko added.

“We can design a better diagnostic tool in order to tell infertile couples whether there’s a way to help or understand why male sperm cells are infertile and if it could be treated somehow,” she said.

Lishko estimates it will take six to 10 years to create a male contraceptive pill that is safe for the market.

Contact Sareen Habeshian at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sareeenn